The pandemic has been a challenge for millions of Americans, and children’s authors and illustrators are no exception. We asked several of them to tell us their noteworthy quarantine stories, and we’re continuing a series with their responses. Here, Tara Altebrando, author of the YA novels The Leaving, Take Me with You, and more, shares her experience coping during Covid-19 and finding a new brainstorming partner in her nine-year-old daughter.
On Monday, March 9, I broke a bone in my hand with a hard hit to the ground in Astoria, Queens, one of the New York neighborhoods that would soon be hardest hit by the coronavirus.
It was the day after my younger daughter’s Harry Potter ninth birthday party, which now seems like a dream. My older daughter and her friends roleplayed Hogwarts teachers for the young wizards in attendance. We rigged up a talking sorting hat with FaceTime and had an epic potions class involving drinkable glitter. I remember feeling happy-tired when the party was over and glad to see the last kid leave. I had no idea that was the last I’d see any of those children for months… or that one of the moms would soon land in the ICU.
The 9th was a normal Monday and I was walking my daughter home from her theater class. I heard footsteps running up behind us and turned—two neighborhood middle-schoolers racing up to say hi—and when I turned back to continue walking my daughter was just there. I toppled over her and karate-chopped concrete.
My fall resulted in a spiral metacarpal fracture, which meant that the orthopedist had to drill through the broken bone and into the healthy bone next to it then use pins to stabilize everything so that the break would heal properly. By Wednesday, I’d had the procedure and had three pins sticking out of the pinky-edge of a splinted hand. On Thursday, with the news of the virus spread escalating, I asked the head of our school’s PTO if maybe teachers should stop high-fiving all the kids at dismissal? By Friday, teachers were giving air high-fives instead and everyone was clamoring for schools to shut down.
That evening, my husband and I met friends at our favorite Italian bistro while our kids played in a nearby playground. It was unseasonably warm so we sat outside drinking prosecco and talking about my dumb accident and how schools had to close… right? But it hadn’t occurred to us that everything would be closing. Within 10 days, that wine bar was delivering meals to frontline workers.
Over the next few weeks, my family decided that I actually picked a fine time to have pins in (and out of) my hand for five weeks. Can’t get your hand wet? Don’t shower! Can’t put a coat on over your splint? Don’t go anywhere! Can’t type? Don’t write!
But I had a novel, Take Me with You, coming out in a few short months. I had ideas for essays to write that might surround its June pub date nicely and my publicist was waiting for them. I was also supposed to be putting the finishing touches on the first season of my new scripted middle-grade fantasy podcast, Dream Breachers (releasing from Pinna). I did what I could, pecking out words with one hand. But my nine-year-old had maybe 20 minutes of actual schoolwork every day and kept showing up at my desk, asking, “What do I do now?”
I wasn’t going to hit the sort of word counts I was used to; that was for sure. But I still felt the need to be productive. With the broken hand, we couldn’t exactly bake sourdough or knit or do whatever else people thought they’d do with this mythical “extra time” they believed they’d have in quarantine, but my daughter clearly needed me to help fill her days.
So what we did was step away from the keyboard and brainstorm. And it turned out my daughter is really good at it. We took an idea I have for my next YA novel and turned it around and around, looking for good points of entry and plot twists. We sat around coming up with cool names and backstories for characters I’d been planning to introduce in the podcast’s second season… then pretty much outlined the arc of that entire season together. One morning, my daughter blurted out a completely perfect premise for a chapter book series. We started writing it—with her doing the typing.
Even now, my hand still isn’t great. I can, however, type. So I’m back to writing solo when I am able to carve out the time, which is not that often with remote schooling happening around me. But at least my newfound story collaborator—this child who felt awful about her role in my fall, by the way, and who struggled to find her own footing in the early days of the pandemic—is never very far away. She’s in her fourth grade “Writer’s Workshop” Zoom over on the couch right now.